Maria Klemperer-Johnson is not your typical carpenter. Formally trained in computer science, she left the academic world to pursue a career in the trades. After realizing the lack of women in woodworking, she founded the Hammerstone School of Carpentry for women. On top of a myriad of other creative pursuits, Maria is also an accomplished SketchUp modeler and instructor.
Can you tell us a bit about your introduction to carpentry and your inspiration for starting the Hammerstone School?
Ever since I was a kid, I have enjoyed building things. My dad and grandfather were hobbyist woodworkers, and I did projects with them, as well as taking woodshop in middle school. But even as I recognized that this urge to create was a strong part of my personality, I didn’t think about carpentry as a legitimate career path.
I studied Computer Science in college where virtual creation helped assuage my urge to build, and got a minor in Geology where I was able to use both my body and mind in an outdoor setting doing field work. It wasn’t until I tried and was unsatisfied with careers in both of these fields that I realized the construction industry was a place where I could satisfy all these inclinations. I was finally able, in one place, to be creative, to be physical, to be outdoors, and to work with wood. I recognized, before even entering the field that it was male dominated. And while I was able to make a path for myself with relative ease, eventually, the inequality of the field started to grate on me. That was when I decided to start Hammerstone: Carpentry for Women, as an effort to introduce more women to construction and woodworking.
How did SketchUp contribute to your development as a carpenter?
I really learned SketchUp when I was building timber frames. Designing the overall structure and joinery involved in timber framing is a perfect application for a 3D modelling program like SketchUp. I was also able to use some of the more dynamic aspects of SketchUp to work through the challenges of raising frames and thinking through orders of operations of assembly. Because of my background with computers, using SketchUp was a natural way to develop these skills.
Statistically, only 3% of American carpenters are women. How does your school make a male-dominated trade such as carpentry more accessible to women?
Our goal is to create more gender equality in the trades. While few of our graduates go on to become professional carpenters, we empower women to tackle more construction projects in their own lives. This opens their minds, and the minds of those around them, to the possibility of carpentry and woodworking being as much women’s work as it has traditionally been men’s. Gender disparity pervades everything in our country and culture. It’s just a little more obvious in a trade like carpentry, where it’s so dramatic. We do our part to represent women doing this work, and to empower women to feel ownership of the construction and homeowner aspects of their lives.
Who are your students and what brings them to the Hammerstone School?
Our students come from a wide range of life stages. Some are young DIYers thinking about building their own tiny house or chicken coop. Some are in a transition period, looking for more independence as they move into a new stage in life. Some are tough as nails; septuagenarian, motorcycle driving, great-grandmothers who just love to tackle new things. What they have in common is a desire to learn a hands-on skill that is traditionally considered “men’s work” in a setting that is free from the complications of the male gaze.
What is your philosophy for introducing first-time students to an intricate trade like carpentry (or 3D modeling)?
Learning as an adult is difficult. We forget the process of learning as a kid; we try something, fail, and pick ourselves up and try again. As adults, we often expect to be perfect on our first try. We don’t remember how many hours of practice it took to get good at the things we now take for granted. I make space for folks to practice and practice and practice, and I call them out when they disparage themselves for not getting something perfect the first time.
Any parting thoughts?
One of the greatest things that being a carpenter has taught me is that it’s really all about fixing mistakes. We’re going to make them and have to fix them, and good carpenters have built up a toolkit of fixes that they can pull from when something goes wrong. We don’t build that tool kit by thinking about it - we build it by making mistakes and then figuring out how to fix them. This knowledge frees you up to dive into projects without “analysis paralysis” and carries over into all areas of life.